Under ordinary circumstances, the election of a new regional vice president for the Italian bishops’ conference would elicit little more than yawns in Italy, and no reaction at all anywhere else.
Circumstances in the Catholic Church today, however, are anything but ordinary.
Thus it was that Tuesday’s 140-60 win by Bishop Mario Meini of Fiesole over Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto as vice president for Central Italy of CEI, the Italian episcopal conference, was quickly hailed as a bellwether for the direction of the Church in the early 21st century.
Specifically, the result has been seen as a vote of no confidence for the role the moderate-to-progressive Forte played at the recent Synod of Bishops for the family. Forte was the lead author of a controversial interim report with daringly positive evaluations of same-sex unions and other kinds of relationships outside the bounds of official Church teaching.
Backlash against the interim report set the stage for far more cautious language in the synod’s final document, and his defeat this week has been styled as an additional rebuke.
One traditionalist Catholic blog in Italy carried the news of the election along with an image of a cell phone screen displaying the prompt, “Message Received!” An English-language Catholic blog said the outcome expressed “blowback from the scandalous press and the politburo tactics applied at the October Synod.”
The October synod was conceived by Pope Francis as the opening stage of a year-long process of reflection leading up to a second, larger Synod of Bishops in October 2015. Divisions surfaced on three key fronts: How welcoming to be for gays and lesbians, how positive to be about “irregular” relationships such as living together outside marriage, and whether to welcome divorced and remarried Catholics back to Communion.
The bishops went home without a clear consensus, and thus it’s entirely legitimate to look for signs of which way things may be trending ahead of the next showdown in 2015.
The tendency to see Forte’s defeat as a setback for the progressive camp has been augmented by the fact that Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, president of the Italian bishops, used his speech to the conference this week to call same-sex marriage a “Trojan horse” intended to “weaken” traditional marriage.
However, there are two reasons why the Meini-Forte faceoff may not have been a straight-up test between the progressive and conservative positions.
Elections to regional offices in the Italian conference usually aren’t seen as referenda on bigger issues in the Church.
Instead, many prelates see them as an opportunity to give a pat on the back to colleagues in overlooked smaller dioceses who they believe do solid work without getting much credit.
Forte was already Italy’s most famous theologian-bishop, often mentioned as a candidate to take over the Vatican’s doctrinal office, and he’s recently been even more in the spotlight as a papal confidante and prime mover at the synod. Many bishops may have felt he’s had his fair share of acclaim, and wanted to give Meini a turn.
Meini’s not really anybody’s idea of a strong conservative.
Last year he welcomed eco-friendly groups to a liturgy “for the defense of creation,” in 2012 he ordered the closure of a small diocesan community of nuns in Fiesole attached to the traditional Latin Mass called the “Clares of the Immaculate Heart of Mary,” and in years past he’s said Mass in local factories to show his support for workers.
While none of that certifies Meini as a “liberal”, it’s enough to rule him out as a real hero to Catholic hawks. It’s tough to frame his loss as a clear rebuff for the positions Forte expressed at the synod, because Meini has no track record on most of those questions one way or the other.
All this suggests a note of caution going forward.
These days, almost everything that happens to one of the protagonists of the recent synod will generate buzz, and it will take some sorting out to ascertain if we’re seeing a real signal.
When Pope Francis recently demoted Cardinal Raymond Burke as head of the Vatican’s Supreme Court, for instance, it probably was a genuine setback for the conservative side, if only because it’s now less likely that Burke will be at the next synod.
In the case of Forte, his inability to get elected to a relatively minor office may say something about his standing among his fellow Italian prelates. Yet it’s probably stretching things to see it as a harbinger of deeper trends, if only because there are simpler explanations available.
In Church politics, as in other arenas, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.